Sunday, September 11, 2011

Lewis Mumford

Parlor Figure Name: Lewis Mumford 

Birth-Death: October 19, 1895 - January 26, 1990 (2)

Residence: Born in New York City and died in Amenia, New York. (2)

Occupation: Lewis Mumford worked as a literary, cultural, architectural, and art critic, social theorist, environmental activist, author, and teacher.

What’s this person best known for? He is known for being a "modern Renaissance man" in his studies of architecture and urban planning.  His literary and political works led to his association with the “Young Americans,” who were responsible for “reshaping the postwar intellectual climate” of the United States. (14)

Race/Ethnicity/Religion: N/A

Politics: Mumford typically viewed political boundaries as meaningless, unless associated with organizations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority. (3)  He supported a utopian society based upon what he deemed "communist" principles. (15)

Beliefs about relation between art and politics: Mumford viewed architecture and urban planning as only a means to creating neighborhoods to bring people together.  He believed that the integration of art was vital in creating a utopia. (14)

Major Activities in the 1930s: Mumford published Technics and Civilizations, one of his most renowned works, which outlines the history and influence of technology upon society.  Mumford’s work as an art critic peaked in the 1930s as witnessed by his column in the New Yorker. (14)

Major Works: Mumford's most notable works from the 1930s include Herman Melville: A Study of His Life and Vision (1929), and Technics and Civilizations (1934).

Places where figure’s work often appears: Mumford began a column focused on architectural criticism in The New Yorker magazine in 1932 (he continued this column until 1963).  (2)  He also published critical reviews and commentary for the following publications: The Dial, The Freeman, The American Mercury, The New Republic and The Journal of the American Institute of Architects. (10)

Organizations he belongs to, causes he supports: Mumford became a charter member of the Regional Planning Association of America, a group that strongly advocated regional development, in 1923.  He also supported organizations such as the Tennessee Valley Authority that promoted conservation.

Best sound bites by or about this figure, including source:

"Our health and our safety consist in living more deeply as members of a regional community, and living more widely, as members of a world community." (4)

"We have in our own constitution broken loose from an arrogant parochialism; and we forfeit our very birthright unless we regard every other land as an essential and precious part of our America." (4)

About his book, Technics and Civilization: “There is the smell of blood and gunpowder about the book... [T]he world for which it was made was a desperate world that needed a plan of campaign and the courage to fight and leaders capable of action. I cannot supply the last; but I have done what I could about the first two” (Letter from Mumford to Waldo Frank, 25 Reb. 1934).

His idea of the good life: “handsome bodies, fine minds, plain living, high thinking, keen perceptions, sensitive emotional responses, and a group life keyed to make these things possible” (16).

“[C]reative activity is finally the only important business of mankind, the chief justification and the most durable fruit of its sojourn on the planet. The essential task of all sound economic activity is to produce a state in which creation will be a common fact in all experience: in which no group will be denied, by reason of toil or deficient education, their share in the cultural life of the community, up to the limits of their personal capacity” (16).

                                    "Brooklyn Bridge"  (7)                  "Cathedral of St. John," 1917 (7)

Was this person a popular or critical success? Mumford was well-esteemed as a scholar and intellectual, and people viewed his viewp
oints regarding urban planning extreme, yet astute.  However, recent scholars believe that in spite of his many awards, the general public knew little of his work.

Any Gossip? Mumford was born out of wedlock and never earned a college degree as a result of his tuberculosis.

Fun Facts to Know and Tell: Mumford was a self-acknowledged pessimist. In his acceptance speech for the National Medal of Literature, he said he wished for the following words on his tombstone: "This man was an absolute fool. None of the things he predicted ever came true." (2)  Mumford named his son Geddes, after Patrick Geddes, his greatest influence.

Titles of the 1-3 “texts” by this person you’ll discuss in your paper:

  1. Mumford, Lewis.  "What is a City?"  Architectural Record (1937).
  2.  “The City.”  Dir. Ralph Steiner and Willard Van Dyke.  Commentary Lewis Mumford, 1939.  Film.
  3.  Mumford, Lewis.  "Looking Forward."  Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 83, 4 (1940): 538-547. Print.
What primary research have you done? Reviews of his work in newspapers from the time period (3,4), an article written about him (5), documentary based off of his article, "What is a City," paintings by Mumford himself (7).

Major influences on this person’s work: Mumford was heavily influenced by Sir Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist and sociologist, as well as by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. (2)

Connections with other parlor figures:

  • Friends, people who work together, people in the same circle: Mumford and John Dos Passos published many works in the New Republic, a magazine centered on arts and politics, whose literary editor was Malcolm Cowley in the 1930s.
  • Political or artistic allies: Lincoln Kirstein unsuccessfully promoted the work of his friend, Walker Evans, by sending his recent collection of photographs depicting Massachusetts architecture to Lewis Mumford. (8)

    Mumford shared a support for Communist ideals with fellow literary critic, Granville Hicks. (9)

    Both Mumford and Hellen Keller composed letters condemning Nazi book burnings in Germany. (11)
  • Political or artistic opponents: In an article discussing Ben Shahn's paintings of the Sacco-Vanzetti case, Mumford expresses that he imagines they are impressive (despite the fact he hasn't seen them), although Diego Rivera "says the contrary." (12)
  • Other connections: Dorothea Lange, though not an avid reader, enjoyed reading Mumford's works relating to the arts. (13)

1. NNDB. "Lewis Mumford". Retrieved 9 Sept 2011.

2. Weil, Martin. "Social Critic Lewis Mumford is Dead at 94." The Washington Post 24 Jan 1990: d07. Print.

3. Jones, Howard Mumford." "Metropolis and Utopia." The North American Review 246, 1 (1938): 170-178. Print.

4. "Mr. Mumford's Say-So on American Taste." New York Times 18 Aug 1929: Print.

5. Terrel, John U. "Social Critic Tells How He Would Rebuild S.F." The Oakland Tribune 8 Jul 1938: Print.

6. Mumford, Lewis. "Looking Forward." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 83, 4 (1940): 538-547. Print.

7. "Lewis Mumford Gallery." Monmouth University. Retrieved 9 Sep 2011.

8. Mellow, James R. Evan Walker. New York: RR Donnelly, 1999.

9. Li, Shuxue. Lewis Mumford: Critic of Culture and Civilization. Switzerland: International Academic Publishers, 1964.

10. Wojtowicz, Robert. City as Community: The Life and Vision of Lewis Mumford. Retrieved 12 Sept 2011.

11. "Fighting the Fires of Hate: America and the Nazi Book Burnings."  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 13 April 2003. Retrieved 12 Sept 2011.

12. Mumford, Lewis and Wojtowicz, Robert. Sidewalk Critic: Lewis Mumford's Writings on New York. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

13. Meltzer, Milton. Dorothea Lange: A Photographer's Life. USA: Syracruse University Press, 2000.

14. Mumford, Robert. Mumford on Modern Art in the 1930s. California: University of California Press, 2007.

15. Miller, Donald. Lewis Mumford: A Life. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.

16. Mumfo
rd, Lewis.  Technics and Civilizations.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

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